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Andy Stephenson

Hi Marcus

I know you say that you don't say in any way that men are thinkers and women are feelers, but, well, you kind of do say that. You don't go to extremes (who does?!), you give us a spectrum, but saying that women are more evenly balanced surely entails that they are more feely than those who are less evenly balanced towards being thinky.

That's my first point. It seems to me, in the nicest way possible, you just are peddling a 'naive', 'offense' (to both women and men) stereotype. Now I'll peddle a different stereotype, one that's not naive (properly understood) or offense but is true.

Philosophy is done in a cold way because that's the way that truth lies, because the cold way is the scientific way.

Like I said, this needs to be properly understood. It certainly doesn't mean that philosophy (and especially philosophy teaching) needs to be boring or technical. Nor does it deny that feelings are a huge part of what makes us human, and as such, may well have a crucial place in the story, be it as an object of study or as a fact that grounds a theory of ethics - forgetting that humans are emotional would be as bad as forgetting that humans are rational.

Robert Seddon

Plato's Republic is an abstract oddity even compared to many later utopian texts written by men, such as More's or Bacon's, so I'm hesitant to take it as exemplary of any gendered tendency. (Thompson's violinist case, on the other hand, arguably suffers from an excess of narrative colour...)

Have you tried actively putting into question what roles abstract reason should and shouldn't play in philosophy and the examined life? I used to have first year students read Langton's 'Duty and Desolation' before their first seminar on Kant's ethics, and it always got a vigorous reaction from both sexes.

Marcus Arvan

Andy: with respect, there is an enormous difference between the generalization that men are thinkers and women are feelers -- a generalization that plays into a offensive, oppressive stereotype that women are hysterical and unable to think dispassionately -- and the *observation* that many of my female students seem turned off by the fact that contemporay western analytic philosophy seems almost *entirely* stripped of emotion. I do not see what is offensive about that, though I am willing to listen if indeed it is.

What bothers me more is your assertion that "philosophy is cold because that is where the truth lies.". This bothers me because (A) I think it is patently false, (B) it is what feminist philosophers and other derogated sub disciplines have been denying for years, and (C) it is precisely the attitude that, in my experience, *rightly* drives my female students away from philosophy.

You say outright that the truth is to be found through dispassionate inquiry. The problem is -- or so I and many feminists think -- that this is patently false in ethical contexts. What separates us -- the moral community -- from psychopaths is our abilties to feel empathy, guilt and remorse. Psychopaths, because they lack these abilities, fail to understand basic moral concepts. They see *nothing* wrong with murdering people. But murdering people is wrong. That's the truth. So emotion is necessary for understanding certain truths properly -- and so too, feminists say, are the perspectives of women: what women *feel* in response to situations and social structures that men "see nothing wrong with."

I don't mean to sound hostile (keeping this blog a friendly place is a top priority). However, I do think it is important to strongly express my conviction that the attitude that "dispassion in the key to truth" is (A) a widespread view that is (B) probably false that (C) predictably leads to the derogation of "feely", embodied areas of philosophy like feminism and critical race theory, that finally (D) predictably, and sadly, turns many women, etc. against philosophy so early on.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Robert: thanks for the illuminating comment. Yes, I often make it a point in my ethics courses to talk about these issues, especially the importance of lived, embodied moral experience (for example, how it's easier for us to think in dehumanizing ways when we are at a distance as opposed to when we experience things directly). I use the example of how images from the Vietnam war dramatically changed moral opinions about the war in the US because, for the first time, people were *seeing* the suffering. I also tend to show videos of implicit racism and sexism, as well as videos of animals being slaughtered, when we discuss things like affirmative action and animal rights -- so that, again, I'm not just engaging their analytical faculties, but their emotional ones as well (I consistently find that it's amazing how this changes things in the classroom. For example, students who are initially disinclined to accept any argument in favor of affirmative action or against eating animals are often much more receptive to such arguments after their emotions are engaged via these moral experiences).
Here's another case that just popped into my head, and which also, I think, pertains to my above reply to Andy. I was teaching Plato's Phaedo the other day, and three different females in the class immediately brought up how Soctates didn't seem to give a damn about his weeping wife, Xanthippe, or his children. Not a single male brought it up. To the contrary, many of them were quite impressed by how placidly Socrates met his death. On the flip side, the aforementioned young women in my class thought Socrates was an absolute *monster* for evidently caring so little for his wife (who, as as the dialogue tells the story, Socrates has whisked away so he doesn't have to be disturbed by her wailing, so he can keep talking calmly, and dispassionately, about philosophy with a bunch of men).

elisa freschi

Hi Marcus, and thanks for discussing the topic in a quiet and attentive way.
A few preliminary comments:

1. What you lament does not regard only philosophy: mathematics, textual criticism, physics, engineering,…you just have to name a subject to find an in-balance between students and academic staff. Please notice that this lack of balance is apparent also in the case of subjects which are typically "for women", such as history of art, performative arts, and foreign languages. Even in these cases, the ratio of men to women among academic staff is quite different than the ratio among undergraduate students.

2. I understand that this is not your current focus, but I think that contextual factors play a major role in the lack of women studying philosophy (and so on) after the first year(s). As hinted at in the discussion to Trevor Hedberg's Balance Series, women are much more affected by the birth of their children, possible illnesses among their closer relatives and so on. I do not think that this is genetically determined, but culture determines them in this direction.

3. I liked your answer to Andy concerning the concept of "truth", but I think he has a point when he criticises you. Also in my opinion you risk to oversimplify, thinking that being a man or a woman is more important than, say, having read more novels than scientific literature, when it comes to the evaluation of feelings. Thanks God, many men are much more "emotionally intelligent" than most women, and this just proves that one's identity is multisided. You did not state the opposite, but I think you might have underestimated this point.

This being said, I tend to think that no. 2 (cultural context) is the key for the low presence of women in philosophy departments, but even if it were so it would be beneficial for all if one could rethink of feminist philosophy or gender studies as not regarding a "special class" of human beings, but as highlighting very general and important concerns which had been overlooked for cultural reasons, but need not to. In this sense, the fact that the audience of gender studies lectures is usually made of almost exclusively women means that men philosophers are missing a great opportunity to look at the world from a different perspective. And is not this what philosophy is about?

Marcus Arvan

Russell: while we're being blunt, let's look at the facts. The facts about IQ and sex are very unclear. Some studies indicated a difference in IQ variance, others don't -- and even those that do only indicate a *very* small difference in variance, not nearly enough to account for the nearly 10:1 ratio of men to women in philosophy. Furthermore, college age women consistently show higher IQs than males of the same age -- so IQs can't explain why so many women leave philosophy their freshman or sophomore years. Anyway, back to IQ tests: some indicate a higher average IQs for men, some do for women. Some studies indicate that men are better at math and science, but increasingly many studies show that, to the contrary, women are. And many studies show absolutely no difference between g-factor scores ("general intelligence"). The facts, in other words, are *totally unclear*, and to the extent we know the facts, they are completely insufficient to explain either why (A) the ratio of men to women in philosophy are so out of whack, or (B) why women leave the discipline so early on. So let me be blunt: the most parsimonious explanation is that you are cherry-picking your "facts."

Marcus Arvan

Note to everyone: I am going to head off this line of discussion. A safe and supportive blog -- which this blog is intended to be -- is not the place to air theories that women avoid philosophy because they lack the intellectual wherewithal to cut it. There are, I suppose, places to discuss hypotheses like this. This place is not it.

elisa freschi

Hi Russell,

I am not in a position to discuss the statistic data (and having worked on the epistemology of testimony, I do not think that statistic data would tell us any absolute, subject-independent truth). However, let us admit that women's results are on an average worse than men's ones. I agree with you that it is quite unlikely to imagine a genetical explanation for this and that a cultural explanation (such as centuries of educational appraoches telling women that they are not even half as good as their male colleagues —centuries which still heavily influence the education we all received at home in our first years—, or the fact that women have been admitted in many universities only in the last decades, or the fact that they were not even considered mature to vote…) is a much more viable explanation.
Now, are we sure that we want to culturally exclude half the population from our field?

I know, we already exclude other subgroups, but for good reasons. For instance, we tend to discourage racist thinkers to become philosophers, or might exclude intellectually impaired students from Academia in general and philosophy in particular. But in the case of women, this exclusion is at the expenses of philosophy itself, since a priori they would be able to contribute validly to its development and are only excluded due to cultural reasons. Should not we take this problem at heart? After all, we care for our discipline, don't we? Would not we care if we knew that people whose surnames start with, e.g., letters A to L are strongly discouraged to study philosophy? Would not we think that we are loosing our future Kants and Hegels and that we need to do something against that?

Marcus Arvan

Russell: I do not have time to reply to all of your points. However, I will say a few things:

(A) The facts you give still don't explain at all why women tend to leave the field when they do (as undergraduates). As you note, at this stage of human development the facts are very unclear. Your claims about variance would at most explain why philosophical *prodigies* (e.g. Kripke) have tended to be male.

(B) As someone who has been teaching philosophy for over a decade, I will say that the hypothesis that women leave the field because it is "intellectually demanding" does not sit well at all with my experience. I, for one, have *not* found young male students to be better at philosophy than females, and I expect most philosophy instructors would agree.

Which brings me to,

(C) You are right that philosophy is about questioning preconceptions. But that is not what this blog is about. This blog is intended to be a safe and supportive place for early-career philosophers to discuss their lives, careers, and work. It is not primarily your empirical claims that I take issue with. It is your decision to air what I take to be an offensive inference -- one that I worry threatens to turn this thread into an angry, unwelcome place (not unreasonably, I think, given the nasty direction that a similar discussion over at the Smoker has taken).

Be that as it may, your defense of its discussion seems reasonable to me. I do not want to assume that our readers are too thin-skinned to discuss the issue. I will, however, take care to ensure that the thread does not devolve into an aggressive shouting match. Fair?

Kate Manne

I suspect that one of the things that drives women from philosophy is their sense - evinced by "blunt" comments such as Russell's - that their intrinsic aptitude for the subject matter is a perennial topic for discussion. Walking into a philosophy classroom and knowing that (a) you'll generally be in the minority, and (b) there is active speculation about the aptitude of "your kind" for philosophy is a great recipe for stereotype threat. This article is a good starting place for thinking about the phenomenon: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10463280340000072#preview

Christopher Stephens

One problem with Russell's explanation - in my intro to phil classes, female students do as well (or slightly better) on average than male students (with just as many getting "As") - so its hard to see why differences in the extremes would discourage females from majoring in phil. They seem to be doing just as well in the classes. Also true among the phil majors here. So I'd be surprised if differences in aptitude play any role.

I'd be interested if there were more general statistics about performance breakdown by gender in intro to phil classes. But the data I'm familiar with say they're doing as well or slightly better.

Eugene Marshall

@Russell Terman, regarding your comment at 10/31/2012 at 08:56 PM:

The obvious reason why this "hypothesis" might not be worth discussing, and the obvious reason why it might be problematic, as opposed to the many worlds hypothesis, for example, is simple: the many worlds hypothesis was never used as a justification for institutionalized discrimination, whereas the innate intellectual inferiority of women (however construed) has been used to justify exactly that for centuries. Your seeming unawareness of this fact is disturbing.

Furthermore, and most importantly, you say that the reason there are fewer women in philosophy is to be explained by women's IQ distributions and you call this "the most promising hypothesis." I find that obviously problematic. To begin with, your "most promising hypothesis" for why there are fewer women in philosophy leaves philosophy and philosophers largely uninvolved -- blameless, really. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has read the What It's Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy blog, for instance, could plausibly deny that professional philosophy has a sexism problem and that such institutional or systemic discrimination likely plays a much greater role in the gender imbalance than any (unlikely) IQ difference. The effects of such discrimination likely swamp any possible IQ difference effects. Do you really think that comparing math prodigies to your run of the mill assistant professor of philosophy is reasonable? Philosophy is not so difficult as that! Also relevant here is the fact that such IQ oriented arguments to explain gender imbalances are mostly debunked; whatever such IQ tests say, they are likely NOT the primary explanation for such imbalances. See for example this http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2005/09/22/bell-curves/.

I would recommend that EVERYONE who thinks that they have something to say about this issue go and read http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/ immediately. Then wonder why there are fewer women in philosophy than men. If you can still sincerely argue that it must be because women have lower IQs, you are self-deceived.

PS To see a much more polished argument that is strongly analogous to the one I've tried to apply here, see Jesse Prinz's critique of the "men are inherently competitive and violent" trope. He argues, convincingly, that such phenomena are better explained as historical, rather than biological difference. See here : http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/experiments-in-philosophy/201202/why-are-men-so-violent
Add that sort of argument to the recent study that showed that gender imbalances in math scores are highly correlated with political inequalities and you get a strong argument that gender inequalities are best explained by historical and political inequalities. See here: http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/05/31/girls-innately-bad-at-math-nope/

Marcus Arvan

I would like to remind everyone again of the purpose of this blog. I created this blog with the express purpose of making it a safe, supportive, and welcoming place. This thread has -- as I expected -- crossed from safe, supportive, and welcoming into something else.

I will not permit this to continue. Please, everyone, respect the sanctity of this place. I have never yet had to intervene to protect it. I do not wish for this to be the first time. However, I will, if need be.

In closing, I will allow this thread to continue, at least for the time being. However, I will not hesitate to close the comments permanently if the aggressive tone of the discussion continues (no matter how sympathetic I may be with the views of aggressing parties).

Marcus Arvan

After further consideration, I have decided to close discussion of Russell Terman's "hypothesis." The hypothesis itself, the ensuing discussion of it, and, I think, any further discussion of it, are so out of line with the fundamental purposes of this blog that I will not allow it to be discussed here any longer.

Russell: I realize that you may think I am doing a "disservice" to the profession by not permitting further discussion of your view. My reply is that this blog aims to provide a *particular* service to the profession, to its members, and to its readers. Its purpose is *not* the general discussion of philosophical ideas.

I created this blog with the intention of making something good in a world all too full of darkness. The good I created it to provide is a place where early-career philosophers can congregate *safely* to discuss their lives, careers, and work. Discussion of your "hypothesis" here does not seem to me to be consistent with those aims.

Further discussion of the other issues raised in this thread may continue. Russell's topic is off-limits. All posts on this thread from here on out will be reviewed and approved or rejected by me in accordance with this policy.

Marcus Arvan

Hi everyone: in light of feedback I have received, comments are now reopened. Everyone should feel free to express their views, whatever they may be. I will only intervene if the discussion becomes philosophically unproductive.


Interesting. It seems to me that the discussion has missed the point, which only Kate seems to have recognized.

I should think we would all agree that there is no innate difference in the intellectual prospects of a male versus a female student. The possibility of some genetic factor seems both incredibly low and offensive; we should dismiss it for both reasons. Assuming this much, it seems that we'd have little reason to think that women are excluded from philosophy (or STEM subjects) on the basis of intellectual inferiority.

On my view, it seems instead that we instead see women avoiding or quitting these fields due to the systematic oppression they face. Note this oppression need not be 'real' in any way other than that it is perceived. It also need not be institutional (as by the faculty), but perhaps social (as by her peers). If a woman enrolls in a class full of men (and often taught by a man), she is likely to feel some understandable anxiety as a result -- especially if she has found it necessary to combat stereotypes for the whole of her academic career to date.

The problem is cultural, and it is part of our role as philosophers to challenge these sorts of social paradigms. By doing so, we also act as the apocryphal butterfly whose wings generate a hurricane -- our insistence on equality will resonate as a future-spreading wave, with the end result an environment in which the systematic oppression of women is no more.

From the perspective of the female students under discussion -- and I freely admit that my notion of this is purely empathetic -- it seems probable that they suffer latent oppression at all ranks of the educational system, and that this fact (assuming it is a fact) forms the framework through which they view these fields. If I'm right, then unless and until the lower levels of the educational system are impacted (recall that it is our role as philosophers to start this process), women will continue to perceive themselves as oppressed, and their male counterparts will continue to perceive women as inferior.

As a parent of elementary aged children (a girl and a boy), I have first-hand anecdotal evidence of the continued gender stereotyping which occurs. I do what I can to highlight it, but my efforts are not always successful. I find it particularly painful to note that the vast majority of educators at the earliest stages of a child's education are women. That is, the gender stereotypes which are unfortunately reinforced by their teachers are reinforced by women, and when I make a note of it, I get the impression that I'm just another man trying to tell a woman what to do.

Anyway, my feeling is that we need not so much to worry about exhibiting some 'heart' in philosophy, but that we need to focus especially on explicit inclusion of women (in such a way as to avoid giving them the problematic impression that they are being favored only because they are women). Probably that's a fairly difficult project, but it seems uncontroversial to say that we need to at least be mindful of it. It seems to me that by focusing on inclusion, we flap our wings and generate the hurricane -- at the very least, we are then contributing directly to the solution, rather than missing the point entirely in discussions about intellectual ability.


I am grateful to those who have posted thoughtful and helpful replies to Russell. As has been said, there is little reason to think that the research he finds so compelling (a) is correct or meaningful and (b) has anything to tell us about what is going on in philosophy (why would we think some particular, constructed measure of "IQ" is a guide to who will be good at a complex practice like philosophy, for pete's sake!).

Moreover, I can tell you that being confronted with people who seem to think it is a live possibility that women are just stupid most certainly makes for an unsafe space. Even were Russell correct, that women are less likely to be smart enough, it does not follow that *no* women are smart enough to be philosophers, or even that the distribution differences fall in any meaningful range for the ability to do philosophy - yet, again, taking the line that the reason for the small numbers of women is stupidity creates a hostile environment for all those women who *are* in the discipline, or considering joining it.

There is nothing to be gained from taking lack of ability to be the reason for women's scarcity in philosophy, and doing so does much harm. It serves only to justify and perpetuate the problem. On the other hand, efforts to make the discipline more welcoming will benefit *whatever* quantity of women do join the discipline, and ensure that they are empowered to do the best work they can, thereby enriching the field. Even were Russell correct, the right thing to do would be to work toward fixing the culture. The fact that it is also vanishingly likely that he *is* correct only amplifies that obligation.

And, seriously, Russell: Would you be comfortable making the same claims about any other group? Are you going to treat us next to claims that the underrepresentation of African Americans in philosophy is due to their being athletic but lazy? You are aligning yourself with an ugly tradition. I urge you to take this opportunity to join the side of empowerment instead of oppression. Doing so has long been one of the best kinds of philosophical work.

Hugo Estrada

I disagree. Let me put it in the most respectful way I can: male philosophy students, GSIs, and professors are dicks.

Okay, let me qualify that. Not all of them, but a big enough number of them, and, just as it happens in other fields saturated by males, the decent ones let the assholes insult and demean women.

My wife is one of the smartest people I know. She got a degree in philosophy in Berkeley. And I remember going to a study group while she was in college where a number of guys dismissed her. She would speak, and she was outright ignored. As if she didn't exist.

Then a male would make the >>exact point<< she had just made and then the other male students carefully listened and considered it. Since the individual who repeated my wife's point had testicles, it suddenly obtained a level of importance and intelligence that it previously lacked.

I saw this first hand. She never complained about it. I got angry. Writing this makes me as angry as I felt when I saw this.

This also happened in Berkeley, a place filled with enlightened left-leaning men. I am sure the guys ignoring my wife probably fell in that category.

So if there is a lack of women, I blame the culture and the failure of GSIs and professors to make it clear that you cannot treat female students that way.


Anonymous 11:20 here. Russell's insistence in the face of all that has been said is why this dialogue is not appropriate in what is supposed to be a supportive space, and why, Marcus, I think your initial instinct was correct. Russell is not here to be productive.

Even Russell admits that there is a cultural problem. Even if the (to me and others here highly dubious) data he cites were correct and meaningful, he has no way of showing that any of what he has said does anyone any good. This site, I take it, based on everything Marcus has said, is intended to be helpful. Discussion of how the cultural problem can be addressed is helpful. Calling women stupid is the opposite.

I have valued the dialogue on Philosopher's Cocoon, but it is not valuable enough to make me want to come here if I think I will be subjected to this kind of misogynist claptrap. Russell can take his agenda to the MRA forums where that stuff is welcome. I hope it will no longer be so here, because if it is, I feel I am not.

Marcus Arvan

Let me add: these are my wishes because, in my judgment, your continuing to discuss this has made this a hostile environment.

Marcus Arvan

Russell: I published a response to your final question but have now retracted it as I am unsure at the moment that I can reply in a properly composed way. I need time to make a proper decision about it. This thread has, I think, been a spectacle enough for me today. Running a blog that aims to be a good place is hard sometimes, and I am not entirely confident of my abilities to contribute to these ends adequately at the moment. I am retiring from this thread for the time being, for my own well-being.

Kate Manne

Russell, again, results such as those you're adverting to are not "causally neutral." They *affect* the people who are being theorized about - namely, women in philosophy - in a way that tends to negatively affect their performance and self-confidence. So that's one (not the only) crucial disanalogy to pay attention to, when it comes to shoe sizes and IQs.

"Do you mean that the discussion of my hypothesis is *wrong*, regardless of whether it is true? Or do you mean that the "offensiveness" of the hypothesis entails its falsity?"

I can't speak for anyone else, but of course I don't mean the latter. (That strikes me as a highly uncharitable reading of what *anyone* has been saying, incidentally.) I myself mean two things. One, your hypothesis seems to me a very bad candidate explanation for the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. Two, given the fact that your hypothesis has a *palpable effect* on female members of this community (in particular), I believe it should not be discussed. Your hypothesis *might* be true. It *might* even be a partial explanation of the underrepresentation of women in the profession. But it seems very, very unlikely, and possibilities that are both (a) slim, and (b) actively harmful to discuss *should not* be discussed, in my view. At least in fora such as these.

Btw, feminist epistemologists have had things to say on issues like these! Might be worth checking into.

Kate Manne

I'm not sure you've yet taken on board the central point about stereotype threat. Indeed, you've ignored this point for the duration of the discussion.

I've written about this issue some - and I'd be happy to email you a paper I wrote a while back on the Larry Summers controversy - that summarizes my reasons for thinking that the variance hypothesis for the underrepresentation of women in math and science is a poor explanation there. Much of the same reasoning would carry over. But I'm not going to summarize my position here, especially since this thread is supposed to be over.

"If you are a woman and you enjoy philosophy and feel you have something to contribute to the field, by all means, go for it."

Not sure if this was addressed to me personally, but, thank you, I am quite happy to be in the field..!

Kate Manne

I don't have your email address, so why don't you email me (I am easy to google - would write it here, but don't want to get the spambots excited). I will send it along and you can take a look or just look at the references (as I said, feminist epistemologists have been interested in these questions for quite some time).

Re: stereotype threat, the phenomenon involves (roughly speaking) people of a certain group not performing well in a counter-stereotypical domain *when the relevant stereotype is triggered*. So one can indeed hope to deal with and mitigate stereotype threat by not throwing hypotheses about female lack of philosophical aptitude around, without good reason. For, that hypothesis (very plausibly) triggers a stereotype that can induce poor performance/self-doubt on the part of women, who would otherwise be doing/feeling better. Putting the idea out there that women may be worse at doing math tends to *make* women worse at doing math, at least temporarily. It's a disturbing but an empirically robust finding, which it's natural to generalize to the domain of philosophy.

I hope you'll agree this is a good place to leave things.

Marcus Arvan

Russell: you gave your word that you would leave this discussion. You have now violated that word. Your presence is no longer welcome here. I have a duty to protect this community. Members of this community -- and I am with them -- have expressed the view that this discussion is unbecoming of the fundamental aims of this blog. This thread is now permanently closed.

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